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Challenge fatigue threatens The Great British Baking Show’s surprisingly sedate “Bread Week”

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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Ten seasons into any reality competition show, it can be difficult for producers to find new spins on the familiar framework. For a series with a structure as fixed The Great British Baking Show’s, that becomes even harder. How many ways are there to design a bread-themed signature or showstopper challenge? The solutions this episode—a tear-and-share loaf for the signature challenge and scoring-themed showstopper challenge—may lack the specificity and personal touch brought in “Cake Week” and “Biscuit Week,” but they’re creative and fun nonetheless. While this season’s “Bread Week” lacks the fireworks and tension this episode typically brings, the specific charms of this type of baking are on full display.

The episode begins, as “Biscuit Week” did, with several of the bakers sharing their nerves over this particular set of challenges. It’s easy to take cookies for granted, but anyone going on Baking Show knows the high standards Paul has for bread, and the long shadow cast by previous “Bread Week” standouts. The signature challenge this time is one several bakers have tackled in previous seasons, for various signature and showstopper challenges: the bakers must make a filled, yeasted tear and share loaf. Whether sweet or savory, the loaf must be designed to be torn into smaller pieces and shared among a group, the baker for example slicing and twisting sections away from the center or rolling single-portion balls of dough and placing them together to bake into one distinct, but easily portioned loaf.

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Most of the bakers go for savory bakes, with cheese and spice featuring prominently among the flavor profiles. Michelle, Rosie, Phil, Steph, and Priya all use cheese as a main flavor, and Michael, Rosie, Priya, and Amelia turn up the heat with paprika, chili, and peppers. Henry goes with milder flavors (chicken and pesto) and focuses more on his design, a black and white checkerboard pattern. On the other side of the tent, Alice, David, and Helena opt for sweet bakes, Alice making a baklava-inspired loaf and David and Helena inspired by American cinnamon rolls. Cinnamon rolls are the most common American tear and share, and in a show that so rarely features American bakes, it’s interesting to see two bakers take such a similar approach. Straying from savory may not have been to their advantage, though, as Prue mentions finding baklava too sweet and Paul seems entirely turned off at the concept of gooey, frosting-swirled cinnamon rolls. In the end, most of the bakers get mixed critiques, while Rosie and Phil get rave reviews and Michael is bestowed with a coveted Paul Hollywood Handshake for his striking, reversible Keralan star bread. While Henry and Amelia struggle a bit, overall the comments are fairly even, with at least one judge seeming to enjoy each bake.

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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Next it’s time for the technical, and the first questionable challenge of the season. The bakers must make eight white burger baps—that’s burger buns to Americans—and four veggie burger patties to go with. Why the bakers are expected to cook on a baking show is never explained. Cooking and baking are entirely different disciplines; the skills required for each don’t necessarily translate, and while the visual of the burgers lined up on the gingham altar is unquestionably much more appealing than if the bakers had only prepared buns, it doesn’t seem fair to judge them on such a different skill set. It smacks of a lack of creativity from the producers. The less said about last season’s cheap open-fire finale stunt the better, and this feels more in line with that choice than the previous bread technicals. Henry does wonderfully on the technical, coming in first, and David and Steph also regain some ground with their excellent baps and veggie burgers. Notably, Phil and Rosie, who got such high marks for their signature bakes, rank down in the bottom for the technical, Rosie in particular marked down for her burger. In the final judging, Paul and Prue don’t seem particularly concerned about the technical rankings, and that’s a sign that even the judges don’t take this challenge all that seriously.

After a night’s rest, it’s time for the showstopper challenge, and this season the bakers will be making bread displays featuring at least two large loaves that are artistically scored, or sliced with a razor blade. The dough is mixed, kneaded, and proved, then shaped. Once a skin has developed on the exterior, slicing through that skin causes the dough to rise differently when baked and produce color, textural, and height discrepancies in the final loaf. This is by far the most creative and interesting challenge of the episode, and it’s one with real potential as a showstopper. The results are decidedly more low-key than the past two episodes’ showstoppers, but for bread week, this is a neat way to go. This is a true test of technique and restraint. Too many slices, or too deep of slices, and the loaves will tear, losing their structural integrity. Too few, or too shallow, they won’t produce the desired visual effect. David takes things a step further by layering different colors of dough, Alice highlights her scoring with nuts and seeds, and Priya and Michael paint their bakes with natural colors. Overall, though, it’s just the bakers, their dough, and a razor blade, and the variety in the final bakes is impressive.

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Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

Most of the showstoppers turn out well, the flowers, animals, and objects designed by the bakers readily apparent and visually appealing. Not everyone is successful with their bakes and flavors, but at least visually, the contestants come through. While several of the bakers are noticeably jittery and nervous when it’s time to score, the showstopper round, like the rest of the episode, winds up being surprisingly sedate. The results are impressive, but the journey there is fairly forgettable. The biggest upset comes when Michael is named Star Baker, his beautiful campfire showstopper and creative signature putting him over the top. There’s some question as to whether two contestants will be eliminated, but ultimately Amelia is the only baker sent home. Based on the judges’ critiques, her elimination is appropriate, but it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying. When both Dan and Jamie were eliminated, it felt like the culmination of their journey over their episodes. Here, Amelia struggles with her proving times, her bake times, and her flavors, but the episode doesn’t have the right talking heads and interviews to take viewers on a narrative journey with her. Her eventual elimination is foreshadowed, but unlike Dan and Jamie, there’s little sense that she’s aware of her peril and fighting to keep her spot.

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Coming out of bread week, the field is as wide-open as ever. It’s unusual to have so even of a contestant pool, without an early favorite or two. The overall level has been very high, with different bakers shining at certain styles before sinking back toward the rest of the pool. Hopefully some of the bakers will start distinguishing themselves further, and soon, lest the season wind up as less than the sum of its very talented parts.

Stray observations

  • I don’t have much history with tear and share loaves, but I did once play a gig where the conductor, a Brit, treated the orchestra to freshly baked tear and share hot cross buns, to celebrate the all-British composers concert cycle we were playing. They were absolutely delicious—straightforward, almost savory buns with a sweet, orange glaze, topped with nuts and raisins—and I’ve remained fond of both hot cross buns and tear and shares ever since.
  • These showstoppers are neat, but none hold a candle to the reigning champion of bread week, season six’s Paul Jagger and his showstopper lion.
  • Michael not only walks away with Star Baker this episode, he’s increasingly become the go-to narrator for this season, rocking the educational asides and bringing a good mix of confident knowledge and relatable charm.
  • After complaining about the lack of parity in how the previous two episodes treated Paul and Prue as judges, credit where it’s due: With the caveat that “Bread Week” is always very much Paul’s thing, here Prue feels every bit Paul’s equal.
  • One of the great charms of bread week is everyone staring at their bread, willing it to rise in the oven. Unlike in other episodes, once the bread is in the oven, there’s little to be done. No decorations to prepare, no icings and filings to work on. All the bakers can do is stare and hope and wait, and it’s always fun to watch.
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